I wrote to my Senators and Congressional Representative recently to encourage them to support “net neutrality” of the Internet. I argued that the Internet is the Information Age equivalent to the national road system in the Industrial Age: a public service that must be equally available to all citizens.
One Pennsylvania Senator responded, in part, “Like many Americans, I support an Internet free from government control. While I understand the concerns expressed by those who support net neutrality regulations, I believe that such federal mandates would unduly inhibit this industry's investment in new technology and job creation.”
His response raised some questions for me. One is the definition of the parties involved. The Senator talked about “government control.” I see government as an agency of the citizenry. In that sense, “government control” is “citizen control”—it means that U.S. citizens, through the agency of our elected representatives, should control public resources like the Internet, just as we control our interstate highway system. It is worth noting that the Internet emerged from projects—ARPANET, for example—that were funded by U.S. tax dollars through the Department of Defense and other agencies, including some in the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland. Much of the research was conducted at public universities. The first web browser was developed at the University of Illinois, for instance. Over time, the system was made increasingly available to for-profit companies.
While I am not entirely sure what the Senator includes in the phrase “this industry,” my own sense is that the Internet itself is not an industry. Instead, it is an infrastructure sort of like an online town square or agora—a meeting space where both social and business transactions of many kinds can be conducted. That—rather than the Internet itself—is where “industry” comes in. Some of the industry actors in this arena are major corporations and commercial retailers who are not responsible to citizens but to their investors. Their decisions are made on the basis of what will better enrich their stockholders and leadership. As a result, it is important that we protect citizen rights and interests in the process of making the Internet attractive to businesses. The policy goal is to balance citizen rights with citizen access to services.
Commercial exploitation of the Internet may lead to “investment in new technology,” but that will not necessarily lead to jobs for Americans. The Internet makes make location irrelevant. While commercial use of the Internet is sure to create jobs, there is no reason to assume that those jobs will be in the United States. Our concern should not be simply the potential for the Internet to create jobs by creating commerce. It should be to ensure that all citizens have equal access to services—for-profit and otherwise—that may be available online.
While it makes good sense for the public, through our government, to encourage use of the Internet for a variety of business concerns, the underlying public interest issue—the issue that our Federal government must address as it encourages commercial applications—should be to ensure that any commercial use of the Internet treats all citizens fairly and equally. Our goal must be to ensure that the Internet remains openly accessible to all citizens and, at the same time, that it provides effective and secure access for groups that may want to deliver products/services to people. This requires that we make a distinction between these products/services and the basic information highway structure itself.
In this light, it is appropriate for citizens, through our government representatives, to set some rules for how the Internet is maintained and made available to all citizens and, in the process, to create an environment that encourages use of the Internet for profit while protecting general access for all and ensuring that it is used for the public good.